Ten Low (Stark Holborn) – Book Review

Ten Low takes readers to the desolate planet of Factus, on the edge of known space. Having been set up as a colony world for convicts and the more undesirable aspects of society, the planet is home to thieves, killers, former soldiers, deserters, and vicious criminal gangs. One of the people who stands out as different on Factus, however, is Ten Low, an ex-con medic who’s trying her best to do right on the planet, helping to save others’ lives to try and make up for some of the bad things she did during the war.

When Ten witnesses a small ship crash into the desert wastes of Factus she heads to the wreckage, hoping that she might be able to help any survivors. What she finds is a teenage girl in a military uniform, and with a General’s rank tattooed onto her. It turns out that Ten has discovered General Gabriella Ortiz, a celebrated commander in her former enemy’s Minority Force, a child soldier program. Despite this, Ten decides to help the child, and agrees to transport her back to her forces so that she can be rescued. However, after she delivers the General safely she discovers information that indicates that the crash was no accident, and that the General was in fact the target of an assassination. Now Ten must chose whether to walk away, or if she’s willing to put her life on the line to help a child soldier who hates her.

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Despite being a science fiction story, Ten Low has more in common with gritty Western tales and war stories than it does stories that involve spaceships and aliens. Stark Holborn gives readers a very real, very grim and gritty story about people trying to survive not just extreme conditions, but the horrors of war and the scars that they can leave upon a person.

Ten Low herself is the kind of figure that one would expect to see wandering the wild frontier of the US during the gold rush, moving from town to town helping who they can, all whilst trying to avoid roving criminals and corrupt lawmen; and there is a great deal of that in this book, but Ten is a lot more complex than that. She’s a woman who’s quite literally haunted by her past, who has shaped her entire identity on Factus around the horrors that she has seen and done. She has a tally, a list of people whose lives she ended, and she’s doing whatever she can to bring herself back down to even, to help enough that it won’t stain her soul anymore.

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Whilst this initially seems to be an incredibly noble goal, the longer we spend with Ten the more we see that it’s not goodness that pushes her to this, but guilt. She’s a woman who has done some incredibly bad things, who has a lot of blood on her hands. This is a theme that we see reflected in her companion for the book, General Gabriella Ortiz. A child soldier, Gabriella was an orphan taken in by the military, raised and trained to be a tactical genius, taught how to fight and kill, and enhanced to be more than a child of her years should be capable of. Despite being presented as a competent and cold-hearted soldier we learn that there is more to her too, that she’s something of a victim herself. She’s had her childhood taken from her, she’s been experimented on, and she’s been forced to do some horrific things.

Over the course of the book and the time we spend with these two we get asked some uncomfortable questions about war, about what’s right and what’s wrong. Both sides, represented by Ten and Ortiz, have arguments for why they were doing the right thing, and why the other side were the villains. And we see through the way both of them have been treated that neither side really cared about the harm that befell its own people. The book takes a look at the military industrial complex and makes a point of highlighting how little it cares for those that get harmed, even if those harmed are heroes on their side.

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The book also takes an interesting look at the criminal inhabitants of Factus, and makes you question your first assumptions about them too. People who are presented as criminals and smugglers end up being counted amongst the heroes, whilst those on the side of law and order are more vicious and villainous than those they’re supposed to bring in. There’s even frightening gangs who run around the planet stealing organs and killing people who are more complex than you first think, and who may have more honourable goals than you first expect.

Ten Low is the kind of book that has a lot more depth and character focus than you’d first think from the description, one that goes deep into some heavy themes, all whilst delivering an engaging and action packed character driven narrative. Whether you’re a fan of science fiction or not, this is the kind of book that will appeal to many readers, and shouldn’t be discounted just because it’s set on another planet.

Ten Low is out now from Titan Books.

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